Creative Destruction

February 19, 2007

Global Warming and the Environment

Filed under: Environment,Space — Robert @ 6:10 pm

One thing that bugs me about the whole global warming/climate change scuffle is that it tends to obscure discussion of the real questions concerning how we’re going to affect the planet’s environmental status in the future.

One of those questions is: what about the population-rich nations in Asia and Africa? Half the planet, maybe more, lives in one big oval, centered around the Indian Ocean, and encompassing the continent of Africa and parts of Asia and the Pacific nations. That oval has some success stories, but economically is struggling at best. Those people, we assume, wish to get rich and live comfortable lives, and the trendlines seem to indicate that over time, that is going to happen. That means cars and big houses and iPods and all the rest of it. Those things have an environmental impact. How do we deal with it?

Another question that needs discussion: How do we mitigate, predict, and where possible control climactic variation? Here’s the thing: we can certainly quibble about the details of climate change and whether people cause it or not. But regardless of human presence, even a brief survey of the climatological history of our planet reveals enormous variation over time, sometimes with cataclysmic effect. So whether anthropogenic global warming is real or not, we face a certain prospect of exciting climactic times now and again. What tools can we develop to help us continue adapting to an ever-changing world?

My guess at these questions: the ultimate answer to both questions, I suspect, is tied up in wealth, and in space travel. Over the long run, it is increasing wealth in the developing world that will cap and then reduce the environmental impact of civilization. One of the keys to that wealth, and to ameliorating disastrous climate effects, is operations in space, particularly near-Earth space. There are exciting engineering technologies on the horizon that make economical access to space an increasing possibility. Right now, it costs something like $5000 per kilogram to get something put into orbit, on top of the high costs to develop your payload. Knock that figure down to $500, or $50, or God bless us $5, and the world changes in fundamental ways.

14 Comments »

  1. One of those questions is: what about the population-rich nations in Asia and Africa? Half the planet, maybe more, lives in one big oval, centered around the Indian Ocean, and encompassing the continent of Africa and parts of Asia and the Pacific nations.

    India and much of coastal Asia are population-rich, Africa is not terribly rich in population and Mathlusian factors have been keeping population growth there far lower than once predicted. Population growth has also greatly slowed in China and developing Asia.

    Those people, we assume, wish to get rich and live comfortable lives, and the trendlines seem to indicate that over time, that is going to happen. That means cars and big houses and iPods and all the rest of it. Those things have an environmental impact. How do we deal with it?

    Absolutely. Greenhouse gas emissions are plateauing in the developed world, but they aren’t decreasing and can’t easily decrease at a pace sufficient to offset rough and ready growth in the developing nations. Developing nations are almost certainly going to be less polluting along the way that the U.S. or Europe were at comparable points, because they can leapfrog over unfortunately episodes in our own development informed by hindsight, but there are limits. If China and India start spewing greenhouse gases at a peak level equal to the cleanest country in the developed worl there is still a huge problem.

    How do we mitigate, predict, and where possible control climactic variation?

    While your followup to this question is too mealy mouthed for a response, there are things humans could do that would mitigate, but many have their own problems associated with them.

    For example, a recent study showed that a 50 warhead a side nuclear war between Pakistan and India would provoke a nuclear winter effect roughly comparable to the effect of all of human caused global warming to date. But, killing hundreds of millions of people is a damn poor way to adjust the global thermostat. Still, the example suggests that we could intentionally trigger global cooling agents to counteract global warming.

    Alas, the scientific uncertainty involved is huge. Coffee plus alcohol gives you a wide awake drunk, they don’t simply cancel each other out. Intentional global cooling likely wouldn’t simply cancel out global warming.

    Right now, it costs something like $5000 per kilogram to get something put into orbit, on top of the high costs to develop your payload. Knock that figure down to $500, or $50, or God bless us $5, and the world changes in fundamental ways.

    Prety unlikely. One of the biggest costs associated with one way rockets is fuel. This cost is going up, not down. Intentionally polluting the air is more promising.

    Comment by ohwilleke — February 20, 2007 @ 4:17 pm | Reply

  2. Those people, we assume, wish to get rich and live comfortable lives, and the trendlines seem to indicate that over time, that is going to happen. That means cars and big houses and iPods and all the rest of it. Those things have an environmental impact. How do we deal with it?

    One thing that they, and we, could do is put most people closer together. If 90% of people in the US lived in NYC style cities, where 80% of people don’t have cars, public transit is readily available, and some resources such as heating are shared, the amount of energy being used could be decreased substantially. Plus it would cut down on obesity: a study comparing low-public-transit regions in NYC (ie Staten Island and outer Queens) with higher density regions showed a marked decrease in obesity in the regions with more public transportation options. Just walking to the subway can be enough exercise to do some good.

    Another idea: Cut down on the number of cows we raise. Methane, which comes out of cows in quantity, is a worse greenhouse gas than CO2. Fewer cows and more rainforest could be of benefit. (Not sure how much the cow population would have to be reduced and how much other food animals contribute. As far as I know no one has put reduction in food mammal production forward as a serious proposal for reducing greenhouse gas production. It’s just my little crank theory.)

    Comment by Dianne — February 20, 2007 @ 4:44 pm | Reply

  3. I suspect a bigger source of methane is leakage from natural gas wells.

    Comment by ohwilleke — February 20, 2007 @ 8:50 pm | Reply

  4. Follow up research determined that natural gas operations and coal mining both generate more methane than cows, but only by a nose (or would that be a tail?)

    Methane emissions from cows are on the decline, however, since 1980, probably in line with declining dairy and beef consumption in that time period.

    Comment by ohwilleke — February 21, 2007 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

  5. [W]hat about the population-rich nations in Asia and Africa? Half the planet, maybe more, lives in one big oval, centered around the Indian Ocean, and encompassing the continent of Africa and parts of Asia and the Pacific nations. That oval has some success stories, but economically is struggling at best. Those people, we assume, wish to get rich and live comfortable lives, and the trendlines seem to indicate that over time, that is going to happen. That means cars and big houses and iPods and all the rest of it. Those things have an environmental impact. How do we deal with it?

    Part of why the US declined to join the Kyoto treaty was because China and India wouldn’t join. In the long run no amount of conservation on the part of the rest of the world will matter if China and India wouldn’t play along.

    [T]he ultimate answer to both questions, I suspect, is tied up in wealth….

    I agree. The only way people in China and India will get rich and live comfortable lives (by western standards) is by becoming as productive as Westerners. And if an additional 2 billion people started being as productive as Westerners, we might very well discover technological fixes for global warming and who knows what else. In short, no analysis should look at the cost of adopting a Western lifestyle without also looking at the benefits.

    [W]hether anthropogenic global warming is real or not, we face a certain prospect of exciting climactic times now and again. What tools can we develop to help us continue adapting to an ever-changing world?

    A fine question. Our need to cope with lightening strikes, volcano eruptions, earthquakes and global climate change have no bearing on whether humans cause any of these events. Cause is only relevant to the extent it is related to a possible remedy. And even then, the best way out of a hole may not be related to the way you got into it.

    My guess at these questions: the ultimate answer to both questions, I suspect, is tied up in wealth, and in space travel.

    Uh … maybe. If we could find some way to project our greenhouse gases to the moon, for example. (Give the moon both atmosphere and heat; neat trick, eh?) Or harvest hydrogen from the sun.

    More generally, scientific advances will presumably find more energy-efficient ways of doing all kinds of things. Some of those things may involve moving operations into space, I guess.
    Bottom line: I see two broad categories of remedies – global cooperation in conservation, and technological change. Robert focuses on technological change, which has a long track record of producing dramatic results. But we’ve also seen some success in promoting global cooperation – remember the ozone hole? Remember acid rain?

    Some will argue that it’s reckless to count on unknown technological fixes, although ideas such as Moore’s Law (price of computing power falls by 50% every 18 months) imply that we can. Others will argue that it’s reckless to count on securing cooperation from independent, sovereign nations with disparate interests. I argue that it’s reckless to reject either approach.

    But eventually we will need to determine the trade-off between the approaches. Will we be better off spending $1 billion on R&D to stop global climate change, or to cope with the effects of climate change, or to induce (bribe) India to sign Kyoto? That’s where the rubber meets the road.

    Comment by nobody.really — February 22, 2007 @ 11:55 am | Reply

  6. Follow up research determined that natural gas operations and coal mining both generate more methane than cows, but only by a nose (or would that be a tail?)

    That seems to suggest that gas production and coal mining would be good targets for technical improvments. For example, if one could somehow capture the methane and burn it that would provide more fuel and reduce the effective greenhouse gas load (because CO2 is less harmful than CH4). I have no idea how practical this idea is, though, having no knowledge of either natural gas production or coal mining.

    Comment by Dianne — February 22, 2007 @ 12:15 pm | Reply

  7. Dianne:

    I have no idea how practical this idea is, though, having no knowledge of either natural gas production or coal mining.

    Are you telling us your farts don’t stink?

    Comment by Daran — February 24, 2007 @ 6:48 am | Reply

  8. Daran: While there might be enough humans in the world for human natural gas production to be a signficant source of methane, I’m not sure I want to think about methods for exploiting that gas source…

    Comment by Dianne — February 24, 2007 @ 11:07 am | Reply

  9. Daran: While there might be enough humans in the world for human natural gas production to be a signficant source of methane, I’m not sure I want to think about methods for exploiting that gas source…

    It was your claim to have “no knowledge”, that I was responding to. I had no idea that you subscribed to the traditional view of women as etherial beings, morally superior, but intellectually weaker, and not made of the same base, natural-gas-producing stuff as the rest of us.

    I’ll bet your forearm swabs turned up negative too.

    Comment by Daran — February 24, 2007 @ 2:27 pm | Reply

  10. Ps. In fact, natural gas is odourless, but as a woman, you wouldn’t know that.

    Comment by Daran — February 24, 2007 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

  11. I had no idea that you subscribed to the traditional view of women as etherial beings, morally superior, but intellectually weaker, and not made of the same base, natural-gas-producing stuff as the rest of us.

    There’s a cheap joke to be made here, possibly involving bean consumption, but I haven’t quite got it yet.

    natural gas is odourless,

    Right, that’s why natural gas for domestic use has sulfur compounds added so that a leak can be smelled before things go boom. But the gas that naturally eminates from humans is pre-sulfarized so it does smell.

    Comment by Dianne — February 24, 2007 @ 6:58 pm | Reply

  12. Mine smells like roses.

    Comment by Robert — February 24, 2007 @ 7:17 pm | Reply

  13. “What tools can we develop to help us continue adapting to an ever-changing world?”
    Fur boots, the Greenland kayak, folsom points, fire, the wheel, flush toilets, modern dentistry, antibiotics, central heat, cars, nuc-yoo-lure power…and, oh yes, good ideas. Here’s one, “That all Men are created equally, and endowed by their Creator…”.

    Comment by Kerry — March 1, 2007 @ 6:58 am | Reply

  14. I was thinking more along the lines of space elevators, asteroid mining, and orbital mirror arrays, but those are good too.😉

    Comment by Robert — March 1, 2007 @ 1:33 pm | Reply


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